In these parts of Uttarakhand, you need not slog up mountains with heavy backpacks to enjoy beauty. I am not talking about grand magnificence in remote isolated mountain passes or cloud kissing high altitude peaks. I am referring to simple village beauty of green fields, little houses and pleasant hills. From the rattling comfort of a local bus you can enjoy scenes in a lazy way without loss of joy. The road to Baijnath had such idyllic beauty today. The cliffs stood steeply. The streams flowed out of habit. The clouds hung about listlessly. The fields glowed in fresh shades of green. The trees were heavy with apples, peaches and pears.
It was a rather slow journey to Baijnath but it could have been a lot slower. Private bus operators drive rashly, overtake on bends unscruplously and take frequent breaks. At an unknown village while dawdling on one such tea break, a government bus passes by. I hurriedly pick up my stuff and hop on to it.
For those keen on walking, there are many paths in these hills. At the village of Narayanabgar, across what I believe is the River Pindar and by the base of high rugged cliffs, there is a little path that goes on for miles following the course of a river. It is a path with no frills, no tourists and no touts. It is, I believe, a path for a long solitary walk where even the surrounding scenery does not matter and may even be boring. It is a path made for the simple joy of a day long walk. For those keen on real challenges, the trek to Roop Kund under the shadow of Trishul Massif starts at Gwaldam.
When I finally arrive at Baijnath, the setting sun has bathed the landscape golden. A few women are working knee deep in the paddy fields. On the higher slopes rising above terraced fields are pine woods. I am standing on a metal truss bridge whose shadows fall on the glimmering currents of a wide shallow river flowing below. A man is getting ready for his evening bath as he undresses midstream. Where the river bends left at the near corner of the valley, the temples stand in a cluster by its left bank. I have to hurry. I have perhaps less than an hour at these temples before they close for the day at sunset.
A board near the entrance places the group around the 9th to 12th century period. Given India’s rich architectural heritage, the temples are not impressive at the first glance. Individually they may fail to impress but as a group they stand with a medieval charm. There are about seventeen temple structures in this complex. Some are just shikaras over garbagrihas now empty of their original deities. Others are a little elaborate with a sukhanasi, antarala and mandapa. The 12th century Brahmani Devi Temple has a mandapa roofed with stone slabs. Its construction reminds me of the famous Ladkhan Temple of Aihole. Its shikara, like the others in the complex, has minimal ornamentation.
The shikaras are not all of the same size and height. As they stand grouped close to one another, one’s shadow falls on another. Their amalakas crown them beautifully. I walk around within the complex admiring reliefs, stone deities reclined against walls, lingas and tridents. Water drips from a water spout through the trunk of a carved elephant head. I walk into the sanctum of the main temple.
Here stands a beautiful idol of Parvati in green schist. The image is flanked, on the same stone, by numerous miniature figures – Shiva on his Nandi, Ganesha, damsels, rishis, garland bearers. Other than this single notable image, the temple complex has little other admirable art.
‘Idar aao. Muja shak ho raha hai,’ calls out a policeman. Earlier, I had seen him sprawled on a wooden bench and chatting awway on his mobile. The temple priest, his attendants and a couple of villagers look on curiously to see what happens next.
I let the policeman ruffle through my backpack but the fellow is lazy to do a thorough search. He asks a few standard questions. I give the standard answers. Visitors to these temples come to pray, have darshan and make their offerings. I’ve been walking around for forty minutes and nothing in my behavious suggests prayer. I have been looking at the shikaras and admiring little reliefs. It must have seemed strange to the policeman. What was I upto? I seemed to be checkign for weaknesses in the structures, noting down the entrances and study the temple locks. He has never known anyone linger around this long at these temples. I reassure him that I’m only a benign curious tourist with an eye for ancient art and architecture. Apparently, idols at these temples have disappeared in the past. Theft is a real problem. What’s left are locked up in the Brahmani Devi Temple. Some others have been transferred to Lucknow.
‘Have you seen the fish?’ asks a villager as I prepare to leave. I have only a vague idea where I’m going to stay tonight. I better get going before it’s too dark.
‘In the river?’ I ask casually without meaning to head to the riverbank.
‘Yes, lots of them. No one is allowed to catch them. They are sacred.’
By its location next to the temple, the river is sacred and so are the fish in it.
I cross the bridge and climb up the road to the bend up the hill. A farmer follows me with his bull. On his left shoulder he carries a wooden plough. A woman walking few paces behind him carries another plough on her head. Their hard day at work in the fields is coming to a close. At the bend, a tea stall is just about closing. The kettles and pots have stopped whistling out steam. In clear plastic bags hang chappatis, bread sticks, biscuits and spongy cakes for another day of patronage. A few paces from the stall stands a pear tree full of fresh fruits.
A few yards from here is the start of the village of Garur. Four men are seated on a low bench outside a little shop. It is difficult to make out who is the shop’s owner. They are chatting away the twilight hours as is custom in most Indian villages. I enquire about rooms. Yes, there are rooms and I am shown one on the ground floor. It is a basic affair but it will have to do for the night.
Coming to Baijnath has been good. The village is simple. The scenery is pretty. The temples are charming under the setting glow of evening light. As for the fish, they are said to be plentiful.